Meta Man

02.21.18

QUENTIN TARANTINO WAS JUST A TYKE PLAYING DIRTY DOZEN with G.I. Joes in his backyard and “meta” was a mere prefix when English director-writer Mike Hodges’s Pulp (1972) poked its proto-postmodernist nose out a wormhole. This elusive contender for the title of “Curiouser and Curiouser Movie of 1972” then vanished into the footnotes of star and coproducer Michael Caine’s career. Riffing, for starters, on Mickey “I, the Jury” Spillane and Lewis Carroll, Pulp’s inexplicably serene sense of its B movie preposterousness was awash in droll echoes and allusions. A quarter century of hardboiled tropes calmly pass before your blinking eyes, gently scrambled together with more reputable or zany movie borrowings. Coming on the heels of Get Carter, Hodges’s and Caine’s brutalist 1971 gangster landmark, Pulp is the equivalent of Tarantino following Reservoir Dogs (1992) with a pulp-fictive What’s Up, Doc? (1972).

What’s delightful about Pulp is that while it belongs in a line of irreverent, offhand noir deviations running from The Big Sleep (1946) and Don Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949) on into Beat the Devil (1953) and even up through Jean-Luc Godard’s Samuel Fuller-brush-off Made in USA (1966), it doesn’t mimic them. There are choreographed mishaps and baroque grotesqueries that wouldn’t be out of place in Tati or Fellini. Preceding Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) by a year, it’s easy to imagine Caine’s nonchalantly seedy paperback hack Mickey King as a dour verbal sparring partner for Elliott Gould’s benighted-knight version of Philip Marlowe—they inhabit the same decrepit world of buckling, termite-eaten myths, though they are separated by continents.

Mike Hodges, Pulp, 1972, 35 mm, color, sound, 95 minutes. The Partisan (Amerigo Tot) and Mickey King (Michael Caine).


As the ghostwriter roped in to do the memoirs of the mob-connected, faded movie star Preston Gilbert (inhabited with blustery, tragicomic desperation by Mickey Rooney—it takes a washed-up legend to really play one), Caine is all poker-faced facade: A Bogart mask pasted over a Vacancy sign. His voiceovers are slyly at odds with his character’s spinelessness: Having left his London job as a funeral director, along with a wife and three children, he is struck by the realization that “The writer’s life would be ideal except for the writing.” He gets around that impediment by dictating his books. Milking this unreliable narrator conceit for all it’s worth, Caine’s confidence-trickster knack for leveraging ersatz honesty into a simulation of authenticity becomes a cynical parody of the author-as-hero that almost transcends itself.

Pulp has a classic opening: Ten women with headphones sit transcribing his tapes, which are heard on the soundtrack as it jumps from one woman/chapter to another. “A typing pool somewhere in the Mediterranean,” says the screen caption, as he spins his lurid sadomasochistic reveries and the assorted typists’ expressions are a facial ballet of shock, amusement, arousal, and stoic indifference. His flaky publisher prefers King be a man of many pseudonyms: Guy Strange, Les Behan, O.R. Gann, and S. Odomy. (A not so fanciful touch—I had a friend who in the seventies wrote quickie porn paperbacks under names like Bjorn Toulouse.) “That’s how it all began,” he says of the ordinary trip to deliver his manuscript to his publisher’s office: “That bizarre adventure that put five people in the cemetery and ruled me out as a customer for laxatives.”

The first twenty minutes alternate small platters of exposition with a big salad of slapstick bits about the crash-happy proclivities of taxi drivers and protracted bathroom jokes which dovetail into the cheerful disjunction of fascist marchers being heckled and gawked at while parading down narrow streets. The closest thing to action is a truck hand-painted with the lettering “Al Capone” plowing through a couple of open car doors on the fender-bending taxis. Seemingly random bits like those stiff-necked fascists slowly begin to insinuate patterns, an anxious shift in the weather that takes half the movie to start registering. From the start, images of the “New Front” candidate are plastered everywhere. By the end of the film, this petty aristocrat—some small-fry prince—named Frank Cippola will be posing on a shooting platform, a mini-Mussolini gunning down wild boar and drinking champagne. (The film’s last shot is of him in sinister freeze-frame, undercutting the bogus prattle of King’s latest manuscript.)

Mike Hodges, Pulp, 1972, 35 mm, color, sound, 95 minutes. Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney).


In between, there’s a plethora of unexpected developments, clever set pieces, inspired casting (Lionel Stander, blacklisted ham, chortling like a cement mixer with a head cold), and a constant stream of oddball bit players, gargoyle faces (an ancient villager drinking Coca-Cola through a straw belongs in an unnatural history museum), and scenery that is somehow both magnificently ornate and utterly desolated and decrepit. Malta was drafted as a substitute for Rome when Hodges and his company were beset with extortionate mafia demands, but it proved to be a great replacement. Ousama Rawi’s cinematography finds formal arrangements hiding in every architectural nook and awkward civilian posture, but production designer Patrick Downing and production supervisor Robert Sterne outdid themselves with the locations and interiors they discovered and dressed. The publishers’ office is one masterpiece among many—sleazy book posters hung on the regal walls that look about a half-century past their demolish-by date. Most of the rooms in the movie seem palatial but are as cluttered as a hoarder’s den, as if built for aristocrats who went bankrupt chasing the splendors of The Leopard and wound up building Grey Gardens instead. Even the hotel hosting a cheesy package tour is a mix of grandiosity and spartan accommodation: split level rooms where you have to climb an eight-foot staircase to get to the bathroom. (A literal water closest.)

Included in the Blu-ray booklet of Pulp is the text of a letter from J. G. Ballard, who offered Hodges a heartfelt endorsement: “I must have watched the tape a dozen times...best of all was the great Mickey Rooney...you drew a fantastic performance out of him, which can’t have been easy—I love the scene of his dressing, moving layers of flattering mirrors past himself…”. He was right about Rooney, seesawing between broad comedy and authentic malevolence—“Hey Bennie, has mama eaten this week?”—embodying a sour shared pathology of criminals and show biz rats. Caine and the forever insouciant Lizabeth Scott, one of those 1940s femme fatales blessed/cursed to usually be the best thing in whatever she appeared in, were fully on that wavelength. Cutting a slim dagger-like figure as Betty Cippola (doubtless meant to suggest Lauren Bacall, who was Betty to her friends), she played Rooney’s former wife and the current one of the Fascist politician—a princess who tease-taunts Caine, “Come up to my castle sometime.” She also pinches the nose of a huge stone bust of the prince: “Just win, Dago.”

Also unforgettable: Dennis Price of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) trading Alice in Wonderland quotes with Caine, as well as delivering plaintive lines like, “Don’t blame me. You shot the projectionist.” Rough customer Al Lettieri’s tourist—who’s a Berkeley lit professor who’s a secret hitman and underneath all of that a closeted transvestite—comes back from the dead after seemingly being rubbed out. Among Mike Hodges’s other indelible images: The impish hippie girl with the little movie camera, the tourist bus with a Tarzan movie screeching on a monitor over the driver and stewardess, and the grand, traditional funeral Rooney’s character receives. There he is, interned in a mausoleum surrounded by stained glass renderings of posters for his old movies.

Howard Hampton

Pulp is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

“HAVE YOU HEARD OF ‘AFROFUTURISM’?” responds the young artist, when her photographer asks why she’s hanging that ridiculous arrangement of electrical sockets over her painted face. “It’s this thing…it’s really big right now…and white people really like it for some reason.”

With the international premiere of this brief, bold, and hilarious artworld satire, This One Went to Market?, 2017, from Nairobi-based filmmaker Jim Chuchu’s brilliant new webseries “We Need Prayers,” 2017–, produced together with the ten-member strong Nest Collective, the 47th International Film Festival Rotterdam was launched with a certain promise that an uncompromising interrogation of all the present’s volatilities would be on offer. With a startlingly dense program of films, installations, and live events featuring a range of international auteurs, it was a struggle to determine where to begin after this opening film. One thing Rotterdam is never lacking in is ambition; as the first event of every calendar year for cinéastes the world over, it is a vital tone-setter not only for assessing the zeitgeist, but for determining what is to come next: the present continuous. Many overlapping themes were proffered, but ultimately, filmmaking with a social conscience ruled the day.

Thankfully, such concerns often necessarily go hand-in-hand with formal innovation. The first film by artist Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes (2017), was crafted wholly out of surveillance camera footage uploaded to the public domain of the web. In collaboration with the screenwriter Zhang Hanyi and poet Zhai Yongming, Xu created a would-be love story between two drifters striving to find one another—and themselves—in the chaos of contemporary China: “In this society,” states his female protagonist on her way to the plastic surgery clinic, “I’ve learned you either have to change your appearance or change your mind.”

Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes, 2017, DCP, color and black-and-white, sound, 81 minutes.


No society, in its thinking and appearance, has changed as much as China in the past thirty years, and one of the most compelling trackers of those changes—and, in particular, those often left behind by them—has been the documentarian Wang Bing. His latest film, Mrs. Fang (2017), documents the final days and nights of its titular heroine, a poor villager afflicted with Alzheimer’s, as her loved ones stand helplessly by. A moving and affecting portrayal of rural community in the face of loss, Mrs. Fang is Wang’s best film since 2013’s ’Til Madness Do Us Part.

China’s heartland is also the setting for Cai Chengjie’s The Widowed Witch (2018), which took the festival’s top prize, the Hivos Tiger Award. In this scrappy but confoundingly original absurdist drama, neighbors decide that down-on-her-luck Erhao (played by Tian Tian) is endowed with supernatural powers after her involvement in a bizarre series of coincidences. After refuting their claims, she soon comes to learn that her very survival and wellbeing depend on playing this assigned role. Along the way, she is able to help not only herself but also those around her, and ultimately emerges as an unlikely feminist heroine.

Cai Chengjie, The Widowed Witch, 2018, DCP, color and black-and-white, sound, 120 minutes.


Elsewhere, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017) offers an unforgettable dissection of that issue that so many Americans are affected by and so few understand: class. Following his 2015 film Tangerine, which explores a day-in-the-life of two transgender prostitutes on LA’s mean streets, Baker’s portrayal of the long-term inhabitants of the motels in the shadow of Orlando’s Disneyworld is a further distinction in the filmmaker’s ongoing trajectory of America’s disenfranchised and disempowered.

Another America—distanced both geographically and historically—was conjured in Lucrecia Martel’s masterful Zama (2017), set in the Spanish colonial bureaucracy of eighteenth-century Argentina, in which a corregidor, awaiting a transfer out of the isolated backwater in which he is stationed, finally sets out on a doomed mission to slay a villain who may not even exist. The long-awaited film is notable in many ways for the director: it’s her first digital film, her first adaptation (from the 1956 novel by Antonio di Benedetto), and her first film with a historical setting. In one of the festival’s high points, Martel offered a sold-out master class in which she introduced the thought and practice that propels what amounts to one of the most sophisticated and nuanced visions in contemporary cinema.

“To take ownership of time is a political decision,” she asserted, in elucidating the complex relationship between cause and consequence—which is the underlying dynamic behind all of Martel’s films. Like all truly great artists, she constantly grapples with her own complicity within the larger sociocultural context in which she operates, pointing out cinema’s hegemonic role in upholding white supremacy when she noted that eighty percent of all films are made by people like her: the white middle- to upper-middle class.

Over the course of five features and three shorts, the young filmmaker Kim Kyung-Mook has penetrated the lives of queers, North Korean defectors, prostitutes, deviants, and disenfranchised youth, among other rejects of South Korean society. Delivering this year’s Freedom Lecture, which included a screening of his first autobiographical short, Me and Doll-Playing (2004), Kim demonstrated that the most profound characteristic of genius is a capacity for empathy, one that is sadly lacking in the political landscape of the world we inhabit today.

Travis Jeppesen


Lucrecia Martel, Zama, 2017, DCP, color, sound, 115 minutes.


The 47th International Film Festival Rotterdam ran from January 24 through February 4, 2018.

Lazy Sunday

02.15.18

APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL ONCE JOKED in an interview that he made films for his audience to fall asleep to. Well, perhaps it was more like a half-joke. The director’s SleepCinemaHotel (2018), one of the highlights of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, puts this idea into practice. Installed in the Zaal Staal of the city’s Postillion Convention Center WTC, the twenty beds on platforms of varying heights could be booked by guests for an overnight stay to take in the 120-hour-long film—featuring footage Apichatpong compiled from the archives of the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam as well as the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum, all accompanied by an ambient soundtrack—projected on a large circular screen at the end of the hall.

I wanted to experience SleepCinemaHotel in all its sensorial fullness, so I popped an Ambien and sat in bed writing until I was rolled up in the sonorous fabric the filmmaker wove.

Hi, Apichatpong. Can I really sleep inside your art?

Look at that fucking prairie. Green vista, the cows on it. The experience of falling. Actuality of it; asleep, I mean.

Who needs a sleep mask when there’s no chance of getting fucked in the night? Boats rowing by, a spectral secret.

Always the sounds of waves, water. The soundscape flowing. Sound detached from image, coming to reform that image. Seagulls mowing down the horizon. Sailboats go by windmills. Am I asleep yet? Big dose of knowledge fucks past our vacant circularity, the veins that dot the insides of movement and unknowing. Here, a landscape. The grasses: little hairs outside our knowing. All fits so well inside the circle. Like it was all already pre-contained in the tomorrow. Waves licking those rocks. How does it taste? I don’t know. I am a something. I don’t need this wind. More like a window. To let the vacancy, trellised, get all inspirated. Outtakes. The value of foreverness in the way it flows. Horse crossing the bridge makes this into another century. Where there is freedom in the rags.

Sudden shift to silence and below the microscope. Then back to pigeons. Alterance to what day is. Sea, again. A flood. My house underwater. I no longer have the freedom I need to live in my unknowing. A personal kaleidoscope that moves along the shore.

Triangle house underwater is like a pyramid with a whole lot of longing. Man awaking next to a virgin in the night.

It is all something, a part of this.

Fellow sleeper stands in front of circle; his bf snaps a photo. My faggotry has been temporarily destroyed by German bureaucracy. But I will get it back someday.

Now I’m on a boat that is floating up to the ceiling. But why is the sound gone? Is that the cue that I’m supposed to go to sleep. Well I’m not. ’Cos I’m not one of those people. Values and all.

Holes in the side of the pleasure ship. Screen turns from sepia to gray. Sometimes I want to smoke something that is less than myself. But I know it’s impossible. Why even air the grievance?

What if there was a way to inscribe this cinema into my veins. To keep writing until it, the entire world, disappears. Now two rats sleeping. Side by side, the rats make their own dreams. They don’t need the cinema to do that for them.

When we fall asleep at night, do we dream the same dream as rats? I miss my cat. Why couldn’t I bring my cat to the SleepCinemaHotel. Will have to make one for him at home.

Boys rowing. The night is a thing.

Here come those ships to take me away. I wish those ships were going somewhere I could go. So that I might know something. Little snakes seem to be massaging the rabbits––I have no idea why. The way a rabbit looks when a snake is killing it, it is almost a hug. It’s like each bed is a part of the boat, lined with rigging––but without the frigging.

Some fucking sharks in the water over there. I’m getting scared. Good thing I’m high up, they’ll eat the others first.

Flashes—bits—dream material— Stuff for you to compose your own.

Man lying there, or wait, what kind of tit is that? Does it matter?

It doesn’t matter what gender you are; it just matters that you don’t have one.

That’s the horniest landmass I’ve ever seen. Maybe I’m not even drowning—

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, SleepCinemaHotel, 2018. Installation view, Postillion Convention Center WTC, Rotterdam.


And then I drowned. My alarm went off, bringing me right back into the dream salle, the same crashing waves and black-and-white flicker that I’d nodded off to. I put on my slippers and sauntered off to the reception lobby for the buffet breakfast, notebook tucked under my arm, recalling all those times, usually on repeated viewings, when I had pleasantly dozed to Apichatpong’s films—especially Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and Tropical Malady (2004)—where my mindscape melded with the cinematic drift. There was no need to fear “missing out” on some essential plot point, since his cinema, far from being experimental or strange, is so much like life itself, which has no discernible plot, no overarching narrative. And then I thought back on all those moments when I drifted off to other works, when I was in the midst of reading a book I was particularly engrossed by, only, in my somnambulant state, to be suddenly struck with some awareness so profound that it jolted me awake and made me lunge for the notebook I always keep next to my bed. Perception need not be welded to our waking lives. Apichatpong knows this. Perhaps, as the SleepCinemaHotel goes so far as to suggest, our greatest insights come when we are totally divorced from consciousness.

Travis Jeppesen

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s SleepCinemaHotel was shown from January 25 through January 30, 2018, as part of the International Film Festival Rotterdam that ran January 24 through February 4, 2018.

Final Cut

02.09.18

ONE OF THE WORLD’S most prolific filmmakers, the late, great Raúl Ruiz is on view again at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which is presenting part two of the retrospective it began in December 2016, one of the highlights of the year. This round offers such rarities as The Insomniac on the Bridge (1985), The Blind Owl (1987), Comedy of Innocence (2000), and Mammame (1986)—a film record of Jean-Claude Gallotta’s nine-person dance performance. It also includes Night Across the Street (2012), Ruiz’s final film, and a weeklong run of Time Regained (1999), his adaptation of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Not to be overlooked is The Wandering Soap Opera (1990/2017), a hilarious spoof on Chile’s sociopolitical scene, comprising a series of acting workshops filmed by Ruiz, which have only recently been edited by his widow, Valeria Sarmiento.

Night Across the Street (2012) is one of the gems, a charming riff on some of the Chilean director’s favorite subjects—time, memory, language, and death—and among his most inventive works. The credits indicate that the film was “freely inspired” by the stories of Hernán del Solar (not a novel, as the English translation states) under the title La noche de enfrente (1952). Del Solar was a literary critic and poet who won the Chilean National Prize for Literature in 1968. Although the book does not appear to be available in English, the introduction to the Spanish text identifies del Solar—who was born in 1901—as a modernist, describing him as the “critic as narrator,” a fusion also applicable to Ruiz, whose reflexive aesthetics and insatiable appetite for storytelling are both evident here.

Before the opening scene, a literature teacher reads from a book, the subject of his translation lesson. He reads the first sentence in French and the second in Spanish, a key to the lesson to follow as well as a reminder of Ruiz’s facility with both languages. The teacher (Christian Vadim)—who may or may not be the novelist Jean Giono—discusses time with his pupil Celso Roble (Sergio Hernández). Time doesn’t really pass, they agree, but is made up of marbles, which might be strung together as a necklace that one might play with—the very thing Ruiz does in his film via a fluid style that reflects the narrative’s comfortable transitions between present and past.

The ostensible narrative is slight: Celso Roble, an office clerk about to retire, reflects nostalgically on the past while voicing odd premonitions of the future. These reflections are enactments of young Celso’s (Santiago Figueroa) childhood. His astonishing grasp of cultural and historical facts goes unappreciated by family and teachers, but his sense of adventure and love of art are embodied in the figures of Long John Silver (Pedro Villagra) and Ludwig von Beethoven (Sergio Schmied), and he chats amiably with both on a daily basis. In one episode, he invites Beethoven to the movies, which young Celso describes as the greatest invention of our time. As signs of their continued significance in Celso’s adult life, each historical figure is symbolized in the mise-en-scène of the present—Silver via ships in bottles and references to the sea, Beethoven by a bust and portraits peppered throughout the film.

Raúl Ruiz and Valeria Sarmiento, The Wandering Soap Opera, 1990/2017, color, sound, 80 minutes.


These time shifts are elegantly mirrored by Ruiz’s graceful tracking camera. Moving gently across the actors, he reveals a space in which a figure or a situation peripheral to the one in the foreground subtly comments on the latter or places it within a larger context. Cuts are reserved for more literal shifts between past and present.

Ruiz avoids melodrama, except to draw attention to its mawkish insincerity or expose it as a suspect vehicle of bankrupt ideas—as, indeed, The Wandering Soap Opera cleverly demonstrates. So if Celso’s life never turned out as brilliantly as the gifted, visionary child imagined it might, the point is not belabored. Nor is Celso’s response to Giono that the reason he had not retired earlier is that he is waiting for the man destined to murder him. We are more engaged with distracting sidebars and self-conscious commentaries that characterize everyday existence, like the repeated requests of a secretary for four-letter words to complete her crossword puzzles. Even Celso’s fate is treated with Ruiz’s typical irony and resignation.

It’s tempting to read a great artist’s final work autobiographically, as if he or she were fully aware that it was in fact the last. We tend to see certain last films—Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964), Bresson’s L’Argent (1983)—as summations of the forms and themes that preoccupied the artists. What of Ruiz? Is Celso’s remark that he’s a “port without seagulls” a hint that the filmmaker felt he had run out of ideas? Should the character’s retirement and death—comically foreshadowed by the alarm clock that interrupts scenes to remind him to take his meds—be understood in terms of Ruiz’s encroaching illness and farewell to cinema? Perhaps. But there is some consolation in thinking that Celso speaks for Ruiz when he says, “We only lend ourselves to death,” which is, after all, in the neighborhood—just across the street.

Tony Pipolo

”Life Is a Dream: The Films of Raúl Ruiz (Part 2)” runs February 9 through 18 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.

“WHY THE HELL IS GREGG ARAKI HANGING OUT WITH A BUNCH OF GROSS JOCKS ANYWAY?” This might be the natural question to ask after watching the director responsible for evil treats such as The Doom Generation (1995) and Nowhere (1997)—not to mention the ghoulish Mysterious Skin (2004)—direct an episode of Riverdale, the CW’s 2017 reactivation of the Archie comic-book mythology as supposedly dark teen drama. With Araki’s freakier impulses tamed to meet the demands of network television, his explosive presence can be hard to detect. Nobody is smoking; nobody is a goofy homosexual hot for oblivion played by James Duval (once Araki’s zonked-out alter ego and the thinking dude’s Keanu Reeves). Nobody is blasting Slowdive. Maybe procuring Araki’s talents was simultaneously genius and a total no-brainer. Acid bitchiness, melodrama, teenage boys (one of whom happens to be a “skid-row hottie” shaking his thing on a webcam), and a big dysfunctional cast: He’s not exactly on alien turf. But “The Wrestler,” the eleventh episode of Riverdale’s second season, offers the creepy experience of watching Araki in a world so close to his own and yet eerily not, since its zombified writing and vibe preclude his typical mischief or horror. A “straight” Gregg Araki? Um, not exactly . . . Maybe his ghost?

A wrestling match provides the episode with a big homoerotic heart. When Veronica’s supervillain dad and ex-wrestling champ Hiram Lodge (Mark Consuelos) locks dreamy Archie (KJ Apa) in a chokehold, his muscles flexing like hungry pythons, he’s the monster father from every closeted kid’s anxiety dreams. That which is repressed threatens to burst from their Tom of Finland outfits and transform the scene into a paid rough-and-tumble between wide-eyed trick and experienced customer. Hiram also lays ringside wisdom on the boy that sounds like a hymn to the joys of anonymous fucking: “When it’s two men on the mat, it doesn’t matter who you are.” Archie’s eyes bug. Daddy’s mimicking the dominatrix in Nowhere: “I just love the smell of boy and fear mixed together.” Earlier that morning, when the feds snuck upon on him and encouraged the kid to quit basketball and gain more knowledge of Hiram’s activities, is this what they meant? A bout between Archie and another high schooler soon afterward (no middle-aged dudes allowed) is as strange as it is sexual: That faithful mat is Zoloft blue and shot from overhead like a lonesome moonscape, while the physical stuff happens in a slo-mo trance. This is the most commercial thing Araki’s produced since he gave Heather Graham lines like, “Dogs eating people is cool!” and got her to simulate a blowjob in a convertible, engine revving.

Meanwhile, Jughead (Cole Sprouse) wrestles with problems that aren’t so erotic. No longer the brainy glutton of yore and way into what Rose McGowan called “the world sucks” phase of adolescence, he discovers his hometown’s wealth is soaked in the blood of slaughtered American Indians. The other tragedy of the episode is that Araki doesn’t get to film Jughead’s absentee biker dad, since the once-smoldering dude in question is Skeet Ulrich, aka Billy the killer from Scream (1997).

Ah, Scream . . . Rewind: Araki’s role as longtime chronicler of all the disorientations that come with teen life feels oddly unacknowledged now. The Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy—Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere—is right there for oddball kids when they’re drifting from Tim Burton fairy tales and into hallucinogens. It all makes perfect sense, because Araki is Burton gone candy flipping: a goth who mixes angst with psychedelic and sexy delight, with his zany production design that’s punk in the same way that whatever Burton created between Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1986) and Edward Scissorhands (1990) was punk. He throws rabid pink wolf posters and enormous dinosaurs into The Doom Generation. The colors are always dreamy and the costumes are predictably killer—who doesn’t crave that I BLAME SOCIETY shirt from The Living End (1992)? Being ferociously sad never looked so fun. Araki’s style haunts plenty of art from the past two decades. Roam the spook-house discotheque of Alex Da Corte’s installation Free Roses, 2016, revisit the cartoon anarchy unleashed by Ryan Trecartin throughout the 2000s, or chase the videotaped monologue at the end of Nowhere (“I’m only eighteen years old and I’m totally doomed”) with anything by Sue de Beer.

Riverdale, 2017–, still from a TV show on The CW. Season 2, episode 11. Hiram Lodge (Mark Consuelos) and Archie Andrews (K.J. Apa).


Cue special-guest star, magical painter, and devil on my shoulder Sam McKinniss, whom I prevailed on to brood on Araki from his studio in Brooklyn:

Gregg Araki is the drinking, drugging, and fucking man’s Todd Haynes, which is to say, Gregg Araki is Gregg Araki.
Gregg Araki is ketamine and poppers.
Todd Haynes grew up, Gregg Araki didn’t need to.
Or I wish he didn’t anyway.
James Duval is the only believable teen heartthrob I’ve ever seen.
This scene is a HEARTBREAKER . . . “I think the, uh, Kamikaze Dildos are playing at the Hellholle.”
Hahaha

All this work offers a way darker and more deranged teen world than the one explored in Riverdale. Araki never follows the night-of-the-living brain-dead belief that innocence means the same thing as “good” or “kind”; innocence in his world leads to scary fun with dead bodies and narcotics. Check the moment where astonishing redhead and local mean girl Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) Eve-ishly twirls a candy apple at the town founder’s day carnival for a PG illustration of this idea; watch Mysterious Skin to see it turn very dark indeed.

But that ending: Jughead and a band of Native protesters storm the festivities, demanding that the statue of the town’s founder, a white general, be overthrown. Yup, folks in Riverdale are going through what Chic, that aforementioned “skid-row hottie,” calls “dark education” in American history, too. This Civil War relic ends up with his head cut off—an Araki trademark. His filmography is littered with a Sleepy Hollow quantity of severed heads, mixing the actual decapitations with all the minds disconnected from bodies by drugs or gloom. “Is it possible to be so sad your brain melts?” asked hot Elvis from the director’s short film for the French fashion house Kenzo in 2015. There’s a cute, vandal touch seen in Riverdale just before the credits roll: The bloody paint splashed on the headless statue is pink.

Charlie Fox

Dark Comedy

02.05.18

THIS YEAR is the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ingmar Bergman. It is being celebrated with a retrospective at Film Forum in New York and multiple events throughout the year at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley—a wonderful opportunity for film buffs to acquaint or reacquaint themselves with one of the giants of film history. From the mid-1940s through the mid-1950s, Bergman wrote screenplays and directed more than a dozen movies. But after the international success of the elegant comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)—the source of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music—followed by that of Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal (both 1957), each new film became a cultural event. Even Hollywood bowed to Bergman’s prominence, awarding him the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film three times—for The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), and Fanny and Alexander (1983). Although Bergman’s films were naturalistic psychological dramas, his name was so quickly associated with metaphysical or religious allegories that his style was often parodied—as in George Coe and Anthony Lover’s witty short De Düva (The Dove, 1968)—or paid left-handed compliments, as when the late Andrew Sarris lambasted the climactic sequence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as “instant Ingmar.”

Bergman was a formidable director of a group of actors whose idiosyncrasies became familiar channels and surrogates of his persona, and whose faces and voices were the key features of his aesthetic. Yet few Americans knew the breadth of his talent until his theater work arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the 1980s. The first was a mesmerizing production of Hamlet, to which none of the dozen-plus stage and film versions I’ve seen before or since hold a candle. In truth, to comprehend the extent of Bergman’s genius is to recognize that his staging of Hamlet, as well as his television productions of The Magic Flute and the Bacchae, were not just definitive treatments of Shakespeare, Mozart, and Euripides, but incontestably private, even domestic dramas, in which the director’s stress on the combustible relationships between men and women reflected his own family’s dynamics and their turbulent effects on his romantic entanglements.

Indeed, the circumstances of Bergman’s life and psychology are inextricable from his art. The son of a strict Lutheran minister, he wrestled early on with the paradoxes of faith. His repudiation of the Old Testament God and his repulsion of depictions of the tortured Jesus—both expressed in The Magic Lantern (1988), his second autobiography—are conveyed in several films. In Winter Light (1962), the agnostic pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand), one of Bergman’s alter egos, looks at the wooden carving of the crucified Christ above the altar of his church and declares, “What a ridiculous image.” The film is the centerpiece of a trilogy—with Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence (1963)—that remains one of the director’s strongest testaments to his struggle with “God’s silence.” Darkly ends with the banal sentiment that God is Love and vice versa, an equation echoed in Winter Light through the contrast between the self-centered pastor who drives a depressed man (Max von Sydow) to suicide and the secular devotion of his mistress (Ingrid Thulin). But in The Silence, neither Anna’s (Gunnel Lindblom) carnality nor her sister Esther’s (Thulin) intellect is an adequate bastion against the emptiness of their lives and the fear of death.

Ingmar Bergman, Through a Glass Darkly, 1961, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 89 minutes.


As is true of many artists’ earliest ventures, Bergman’s were efforts to work through the frustrations of childhood and adolescence. His screenplay for Alf Sjöberg’s Torment (1944) is drawn from his own experiences as a student, confronting indifferent parents and a patriarchal society, the latter embodied in the film as a split between a kind headmaster and a sadomasochistic Latin instructor. Mothers do not fare well in Crisis (1946) and Port of Call (1948). Three Strange Loves (aka Thirst [1949]) is a cynical portrait of the institution that is painstakingly dissected years later in Scenes from a Marriage (1973). The couple in To Joy (1950) was directly modeled on Bergman’s second marriage, moving from ideal to embittered circumstances and back again, with a cathartic ending set to the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Bergman’s preoccupation with women and society’s—and perhaps his own—failure to understand and address their needs was apparent from the beginning. When not depicted as a hellish trap, marriage is seen as an unfulfilling state (Summer Interlude, 1950), and several films imply that abortion and lesbianism are paths to independence. As the director’s failed romantic relationships accumulated, and as later films such as Persona (1966), The Passion of Anna (1969), and Cries and Whispers (1973) suggest, the psychology of women became nearly as abstruse an object of investigation as the existence of God.

Persona seems to be an attempt to exorcise some of Bergman’s childhood traumas through the medium of the very actresses with whom he was involved. Born of a feverish illness that left him withdrawn and speechless, the film is the study of two women whose identities are increasingly confused. Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann) is an actress who suffers a breakdown following a performance of Electra, leaving her mute and unapproachable. Alma (Bibi Andersson), the nurse assigned to bring her back to health, soon proves equally vulnerable. As Alma reveals her most intimate secrets to fill the silence, the interaction between the two begins to resemble the transference relationship between psychoanalyst and patient, which often leads, as it does here, to pleas for verbal response followed by hostility.

Shots of Alma’s and Elisabeth’s overlapping faces wavering between merger and individuation further stress the film’s psychoanalytic bent. In its opening and closing passages, a young boy, waking from disturbing dreams, moves his hand across a huge but blurry image of a woman’s face, as if trying to bring it into focus. His gesture evokes both the infant'\’s need for the mother’s reciprocal gaze and Melanie Klein’s theory of the “good breast” versus the “bad breast,” in which fluctuations between dependency and repulsion are only resolved when the child accepts that both breasts belong to the same person. Its projections onto the breast are thus the first instances of the dream screen, against which the child’s conflicting emotions enact a primal cinema.

In light of Bergman’s avowal that the patterns of his childhood were reenacted with his lovers (including Ullmann and Andersson), Persona can be read as the troubled dream of the boy who, as artist, chose the métier best suited to his unending search, face after face, for that reciprocal gaze. Obsessed with cinema at an early age, he was enraged when the mini-projector he hoped to receive for Christmas was instead given to his older brother, forcing Ingmar to give his toy soldiers in exchange for it. His fascination is captured in an early moment in The Silence, when another boy stands in the corridor of a train, transfixed by the flickering light, objects, and landscapes passing by him through the windows like the successive frames of a movie. For Bergman, the moment was more than metaphorical; it epitomized the virtual dream screen which he believed was the medium’s essence.

It follows that Bergman’s rapport with cinematographers was critical. Of Sven Nykvist, with whom he worked consistently from 1960, he remarked that they thought so much alike it was unnecessary to speak. Both were captivated by the incalculable range and problems of light in all its “gentle . . . dreamlike . . . calming . . . poisonous . . . living . . . and dead aspects.” These words describe Nykvist’s work on Cries and Whispers, for which he won an Academy Award. The film is a death watch: Karin (Thulin) and Maria (Ullmann) have returned to the family home where their sister Agnes (Harriet Anderson) lies dying of cancer, tended by Anna (Kari Sylwan), the family housekeeper. The relatively static vigil is intermittently interrupted by Agnes’s horrific gasps for breath and screaming bouts, but also by flashbacks to the sisters’ hypocritical lives. The idea came to Bergman in the form of an image of a room in a large house at the turn of the century, in which everything is red except for four women in white. Nykvist captures both the dazzling beauty of this tableau as well as its slow transformation into a portrait of ugliness and death as the sisters’ fears and mutual contempt emerge. The suffusion of red not only stresses the blood ties that suffocate their lives but the barely suppressed rage that poisons the atmosphere. Even the fades between present and past are bloodred, spilling over into scenes in which Maria’s husband stabs himself and Karin pushes a shard of glass into her vagina and sprawls bleeding on the marital bed.

Ingmar Bergman, Scenes from a Marriage, 1973, 35 mm, color, sound, 169 minutes.


For all his seriousness, Bergman suggested that his films were comedies, not in the popular sense, but as the classical opposite of tragedy, or in the sense that Balzac’s novels make up the human comedy. While comic is hardly the mode of Cries and Whispers or the unrelievedly bleak Shame (1968)—with its Hobbesian view of man as wolf to man—the point is nicely illustrated by The Magician (1958), an underrated film that plays fast and loose with the artist’s themes and the viewer’s expectations. The tale of Vogler, a quack magician (von Sydow), traveling with his wife (Thulin) and an array of eccentrics, initially engages as a gothic mystery with portents of doom and religious overtones. Mute and bearded to evoke Christ, the “magician” comforts a dying man on the road, but the skepticism of the local doctor soon reveals Vogler as a fraud. We are startled when he removes his wig and beard, and even more so when the dying man about to reveal the secret of death turns up alive and the horror show that Vogler orchestrates to frighten the doctor backfires. But Vogler is unexpectedly redeemed when the king summons him to court to demonstrate his powers. In its shifty conflation of genres and moods, as well as in its ability to entrance even as it debunks, The Magician is a compelling and witty fable about the irresistible powers of art and shows that Bergman was obsessed with self-exposure, as he alleged was true of Ibsen, but was not above self-mockery.

There is nothing self-mocking, however, about Fanny and Alexander, which was billed as Bergman’s farewell to the cinema. Though it was followed by a few television films—including Saraband (2003), his sequel to Scenes from a MarriageFanny, by all accounts, is considered his grandest achievement, a sweeping, lovingly detailed bildungsroman of memorable characterizations, embracing every theme close to his heart, etching a vivid portrait of his childhood, and invoking his fascination with theater and cinema with its very first shot. As the camera moves in to a cardboard stage with cutout figures, the backdrop suddenly ascends as the face of Alexander (Bertil Guve)—yet another young surrogate for the director—takes its place as the creator behind the scene. Moments later, Alexander falls asleep under a table, dreaming or imagining that a statue of a nude female is moving and that the figure of death, scythe in hand, hovers nearby. In less than five minutes, three of the themes that obsessed Bergman all his personal and professional life find expression. When Alexander’s life is disrupted by his father’s death and his mother’s marriage to a diabolically cruel bishop, the world of fantasy, imagination, and illusion takes on greater importance. Guided through the spectral labyrinth of his liberator’s shop by an assistant (played by Mats Bergman, the director’s son), he comes to know how artifice can be used to exorcise demons. So as we watch Alexander in the film’s final shot, nestled against his grandmother on a chair as she opens A Dream Play by August Strindberg—one of Bergman’s mentors—we can surmise that every word she reads to herself is being absorbed by the boy cozily crunched beside her.

Tony Pipolo

A centennial retrospective of Ingmar Bergman runs Wednesday, February 7, through Thursday, March 15, at Film Forum in New York. “Bergman 100” runs throughout 2018 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.